Turning the absurd into an art form: Canada's National Gallery has a history filled with bizarre decisions
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 9 September 2003)

In 1959 the Conservative government fired the director of the National Gallery of Canada, Alan Jarvis, for being too chic, too mouthy, too gay and too careless about committing himself to buy Old Masters when he didn't have money in the budget to pay for them. The Conservatives, believing art should be as boring as they were, replaced Jarvis with Charles Comfort.

Comfort had painted the murals in the Toronto Stock Exchange and was president of the Royal Canadian Academy, an organization so discreetly grand that to this day only its members know what it is. Comfort's last name produced many feeble jokes, though it may have worked as a subconscious tranquilizer on the selection committee. Certainly comfort was what the government sought, and what it didn't get.

When he became director, the gallery staff rolled over and went to sleep. That left no one to save him from a hideous blunder, a big exhibition in 1962 of European paintings owned by Walter P. Chrysler, the automobile heir. The labels said they were by Cezanne, Van Gogh, Degas, etc., but when the show opened it turned out that half of them were fakes. No one could remember anything so mortifying ever happening to a national gallery, and the international news stories about it reinforced the already widespread perception that Ottawa under John Diefenbaker was in the hands of buffoons. Comfort made it worse by lying. He claimed no one had warned him that the paintings looked a bit dodgy; the Liberal opposition proved in Parliament that the head of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts had tipped him off. Apparently Comfort had gone ahead anyway, hoping no one would notice.

This event was unique, but in a way it was also typical of the National Gallery, an institution that hopes to be a dignified temple of the arts but often ends up looking like a Marx Brothers skit. The more you study its history, the more outlandish it seems.

In the 1970s the gallery's overseers installed as director a Chinese-born scholar, Hsio-Yen Shih, who knew nothing of Canadian art but impressed the selection committee as a decisive executive. She seemed a good choice until she brought in an exhibition of Maoist folk paintings depicting happy Chinese peasants. The work looked suitable for illustrating propaganda pamphlets, but it was not funny; after all, it appeared just as the horrors of the Cultural Revolution were slowly being revealed by the wretched survivors. The show attracted relatively little comment, I think, because most who saw it were struck dumb by its banality and cruelty. Shih, it seems, thought well of Mao Zedong's government, a point that probably didn't come up in her job interview.

Douglas Ord has pulled this complex history together in The National Gallery of Canada: Ideas Art Architecture (McGill-Queen's University Press), a book that's opinionated, pretentious, richly informative and highly readable. On most of the major issues, he emphatically makes his views clear, usually more than once. In the long-running epic battle between the National Museums Corporation and Jean Sutherland Boggs, the director from 1966 to 1976, Ord comes down firmly on the Boggsian side. The National Museums Corporation ("a bureaucratic behemoth," Ord calls it) was one of those brilliant Ottawa systems for imposing order on chaos by central planning. Naturally, it created more waste than it abolished. It grew big, strong and bossy, and eventually they had to take it out and shoot it -- though not before rampaging bureaucrats drove Boggs (the best National Gallery director ever) to distraction and forced her to leave her job and Canada.

She had her revenge. Pierre Trudeau ignored her pleas for mercy in the years she was fighting for her gallery's independence, but in the early 1980s he realized he had forgotten to arrange for a suitable monument to his reign. He asked Boggs, by then director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to come home and build the long-promised new National Gallery as well as the Museum of Civilization. Instead of telling him where to stuff his offer, Boggs graciously agreed. She went furiously to work and by the time she was ousted once more, this time by Brian Mulroney's government, both the Moshe Safdie National Gallery and the Douglas Cardinal museum were so close to completion that they had to be finished. In 1988 the National Gallery finally opened its first real home.

Douglas Ord makes an ideal historian for this subject. He's industrious, thoughtful and just crazy enough to be interesting. His craziness focuses on religion. He looks at the Safdie building, notes that it echoes religious forms (Egyptian temples, Gothic cathedrals, Aztec pyramids, etc.), and then searches through the gallery's past for long-established religious impulses. Ord notes that the two directors who ran it from 1910 to 1955, Eric Brown and H.O. McCurry, were both Christian Scientists who saw art as a way of contemplating the great truths and blessings of existence. They permanently endowed the gallery, Ord argues, with a sense of mission, meshing spiritual values with Canadian nationalism.

There are times when a reader may wish Ord were less anxious to display his range of knowledge; in a two-page passage he calls on Plato, Robertson Davies, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Aristotle to explain some not terribly important points. There were moments when I wanted him to give the word "irony" a rest, stop reiterating his arguments, and for once let the story tell itself. Still, I wouldn't have missed his book for the world.

In Jean Chretien's Ottawa, the National Gallery has nestled into the heart of government. The grand ceremonial walkway and the banquet-compatible glass-walled tower make it the perfect venue for entertaining visiting dignitaries. And this summer the gallery has carried its official function to a new level by opening a branch plant in Chretien's home riding, Shawinigan, where the PM can show sculptures by Rodin, Degas and Picasso to foreign leaders while constituents look on in awe. Chretien insists he had nothing to do with bringing this attraction to his hometown; apparently it was a coincidence. In another context this weird project would seem hilariously sycophantic; but, being part of the National Gallery's bizarre history, it's just one more journey into the preposterous.

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